Green in December: Winter Creeper

While I normally use the common name, rather than the scientific name, of the plants I observe in Eliza Howell Park, I have for some reason long thought of this plant as “euonymus” and have only this year begun to call it “winter creeper.” While walking in the park recently, I was reflecting on how well chosen the “winter creeper” name is.

Except for a few lingering leaves on some honeysuckle bushes, by early December the green has left the Eliza Howell woods until spring. It is gone, that is, except for one small area along the river where the evergreen winter creeper grows.

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These green leaves on the tree may look like the tree’s leaves, but they are the leaves of the climbing vine that grows up the trunk and covers the branches. Winter creeper can grow up to 70 feet high, capable of reaching the tops of trees.

The vines are large and strong, sometimes several on the same tree.

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Winter creeper was introduced in the U. S. about a century ago, imported from the Orient as an ornamental. Some have escaped into the wild. These Eliza Howell vines are very mature looking and have probably been here a long time.

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In addition to having green leaves in December, winter creeper now also has fruit  on the vines. The berries are a lot like bittersweet berries (see “Bright Berries, Bright Birds on Gray Days,” November 8, 2018), but they mature even later. They are just opening now.

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There is a second location in the park, outside the wooded area, where these evergreen vines are found. In this spot, the vines are much smaller, probably younger, and are not producing fruit.

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Some published reports indicate that winter creeper flowers and fruits only in more mature plants. Based on the very limited examples I have seen in the park, this may be the case, but my experience is much too limited to confirm it. 

What I can confirm is that a December walk in the woods mostly means brown leaves on the ground (when not covered with snow) and bare branches on the trees…

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… except for the small patch of winter creeper found some distance along the path that goes to the right after crossing the footbridge. Winter creeper is one big reason I take this particular path frequently in winter.

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